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The Musical Listener.

Among the many conversations and discussions about things musical The Listener indulges in, few have proved as interesting and instructive as the little talk he arranged especially for The Etude with Mr. B. J. Lang, of Boston.

Mr. Lang has for so many years been closely associated with the piano in the minds of the multitudes in all parts of America familiar with his arduous work and effective deeds in our musical world, that few realize the wide range of his professional efforts during these latter years of his life. Mr. Lang’s entire week-day is filled with piano and organ teaching; his Sunday with two church services at historical King’s Chapel, where he is organist and director of a quartet choir. His evenings during the winter are given to rehearsals with the three singing societies he directs,—the Händel and Haydn Oratorio Society, the Apollo Club (a male chorus), and the Cecilia (a chorus of mixed voices),—the three constituting as well-trained and thoroughly enjoyable ensemble singing as is to be found in America. Each society gives four or five concerts every season.

Imagine such an amount of rehearsal work on top of teaching and playing! Mr. Lang’s endurance is an object of wonder and admiration, spiced with envy in some quarters.

To work all day and half the night, unceasingly; to work well under such pressure; and to look ever fresh and bright, displaying always a reasonable amount of good temper, savors of the marvelous, especially when a man is no longer in his salad days.

Mr. Lang’s studio where he teaches is a large sunny apartment, fitted up with a pipe organ at one end, a grand piano not far distant, a great cheery open fire-place, and some interesting pieces of furniture. On the walls hang pictures signed by celebrated artists who presented their children of paint to “friend Lang,” also framed autograph letters and poems from authors now famous.

There we sat, while the afternoon sun streamed in across our flow of talk, Mr. Lang looking unworn and vigorous as though ready for anything, his kindly Scotch- blue eyes showing now and then a twinkle of bon camaraderie, suiting well his fresh, clear skin and friendly-looking gray beard, set off by a dark velvet smoking-jacket which he wears for comfort when teaching.

Our talk was too spontaneous to warrant the designation “interview,” but at the point where my Etude readers would begin to find special interest I asked, “Suppose you tell me, Mr. Lang, what interests you particularly these days as regards the piano, the pupils, and the teachers thereof.”

* * * * *

Who Should Take Lessons.

“Well,” he replied, “If I could have my own way I would enforce legislation that would debar all people who were not musical from studying the piano, or music in any form. The eternal pounding, pounding, pounding that goes on uselessly in the world is not only a curse to mankind (constituting those who have to listen), but lowering to the general tone of art as well. Everybody who comes to me sees himself or herself a Liszt, a Paderewski, a Miss Aus der Ohe, or a Madame Carreño, provided he or she will work hard enough and long enough—which is all twaddle. I tell you no amount of technical work will make a great player unless the worker has the great requisite—musical genius. Technic is the easiest part of it all, like everything else mechanical. Enough practice will give that to anybody. But is n’t it sad after the finger work is assured a boy or girl, to listen for music and only get fingers? I know you will ask what I mean by musical genius,” he went on, “and I must confess I can not tell in words. It is like all beautiful things, subtle—too subtle to be described. It may be magnetism, it may be what we call temperament; I can not assert that it is brain because many people with little enough brain have this power or faculty of making people feel with them through the medium of tone.

“I frequently take pupils on a three months’ probation so that we may both be certain before we go ahead, and

if at the expiration of that time I find that subtle thing totally missing in the nature of the student, could I do him a greater kindness than to frankly tell him so, and suggest to him that there must be something else calling him to some work or pleasure promising good results for him and which will not afflict his friends and neighbors?

“Perseverance and industry without native talent may mean brilliant success in some kinds of work, but to my mind they do not mean anything of the sort in the world of art.”

Rising quickly and going over to the piano he asked, “Have you ever noticed the way I teach? You see I have two grand pianos, side by side, one the regulation height, the other built lower just so the end of my keyboard will fit under the end of the pupil’s. Here we sit, each at a complete piano of his own, although I am as near my pupil as a teacher usually sits. In this way I make my illustrations of phrasing. The pupil plays a phrase unmusically—I say, ‘Listen, this is the way the composer meant that to go.’ Then I repeat the phrase on my piano, showing where her fault lay, giving my idea of the best way to play it. This arrangement was my own idea, and I save an infinite amount of time and strength by it.”

* * * * *

The Practice Clavier.

” Do you have your pupils practice on the clavier?” I asked. “If they wish to, but only a limited amount,” he replied.

“Then you do not have them devote a year at a time to dumb piano practice without touching the real piano, as I have known some people to do?”

“A year!” he exclaimed. “A year, did you say? Well, I think not—better say an hour than a year. Would an orator or preacher practice his elocution a year in a whisper or by means of dumb articulation? That’s rubbish! What would become of the education of the ears meantime—of musical feeling and sentiment? Years before the clavier was ever heard of I had a keyboard made on the same principle of weights, but it comprised only two or three octaves, being small enough to carry about conveniently anywhere, so that in a hotel or any other place I might be I could keep up my finger work without disturbing those around me, but to think of foregoing piano practice entirely for such work is absurd. Those mechanical contrivances have their place. ‘There is good in all things,’ you know, but the wise teacher knows also when to stop in the use of all such machines.”

I then asked Mr. Lang if the pupils who come to him in numbers from all over the country show better previous schooling nowadays than they did fifteen or twenty years ago.

“No,” he replied, “not much better schooling; but they do show greater perception of music as an art, and infinitely better knowledge of its history and literary side, which demonstrates the growth of true appreciation of music all over the country.”


* * * * *

How to Memorize.

“How do you advise pupils to memorize music?” I questioned him.

“Go off in a corner, music in hand,” he replied, energetically, with a laugh. “There is only one sure and rapid way of committing: that is to memorize every note, as one would every word in a poem. When my pupils say, ‘Oh, but Mr. Lang! I have such a bad memory,’ I say, ‘Then make a good one.’

“Memory is not a talent, it is a habit. Some people habituate themselves to memorizing in early youth; others do not. The latter say they have bad memories; but the memories are not bad, it is the use of them that is bad.

“Anyone can cultivate memory. Look at the hundreds of actors of more or less intelligence memorizing play after play. Were they all born with marvelous memories? No, indeed. ‘Tis part of their profession. They must memorize or quit the stage. Just so it ought to be with pianists. As soon as children can play pieces they ought to be made to memorize them; not half by ear and half by the habit of feeling the

progressions on the keys, but by a mental effort, indelibly impressing every note on the brain. I told one of my pupils, a young girl, to memorize a certain piece. Three weeks went by without her committing one page. Finally I asked her why she did not do what I told her to. She said, ‘I simply can’t do it, Mr. Lang. I have tried my best, but I never could memorize.’ I had her sit down at the piano with a piece she had never seen before; then I told her to commit the notes as she would words. We worked together until, at the end of fifteen minutes, she knew four pages, and understood for the rest of her life what memorizing meant.”

Although we had not by any means exhausted the subject or each other’s interest, the hour Mr. Lang had, in our behalf, kindly stolen from his work had hurried by, bringing the inevitable pupil and the endless round of his varied duties.

As The Listener walked away from the studio he felt considerable pride in the reflection that the man who could give so much to music in America, and who has worked his way up to a commanding position in that musical Mecca of students, Boston, is an out-and-out American: one of the few prominent men of his profession not of foreign birth or descent. As he says, he is a Yankee, every inch of him. He was born in Salem, Massachusetts, but has lived the greater part of his life in Boston, where he has furthered the musical growth as much as any man living.

The fact of Mr. Lang’s existence at the present day argues well for the future of the native born musician a hundred years hence, when the state of environment and sympathy will undoubtedly be more of an impetus to the musician than it was to Mr. Lang in his youth.

Counting him a pioneer in the formation of an American art, we must be grateful for such a good beginning. Then, too, we are indebted to him for his daughter, Margaret Ruthven Lang, the composer, who infuses into her musical inspirations her own spirit, than which few are nobler or more aspiring.

* * * * *

Concluding Reflection.

Apropos of Mr. Lang’s desire to Legislate against the unmusical student of music. The Listener, who echoes the sentiment with acclimation, must give a comparative illustration of the situation. It has been the sad fate of The Listener to be an oral witness of a thoroughly unmusical nature, battling with technic year in and year out in hopes of playing some day. The combatant is a woman now approaching forty years, absolutely bereft of imagination, poetic emotion, or love of expression—three essentials to the musical talent in the mind of The Listener.

This woman has had the best instruction, and has acquired nimble fingers by much practice. She teaches the piano in a small way, and last year took up the Clavier, upon which she has practiced now for twelve months, rarely, if ever, touching the piano. Could she have found a more certain means of dwarfing the mere speck of temperament she possessed? If she had read Browning, listened to Wagner, and looked at autumn sunsets, she would have been nearer the right road. Now, at the expiration of the year, she can play scales somewhat more nimbly, but she can not play what is ordinarily called “a piece” through. Her mind is so taken up with the way she does it that no room is left for contemplation of the thing itself; consequently, she never does more than a page without going back to do it over again. She says she “perfectly hates to play for people;” and never does, any more than she would sit down and play for herself, merely for the love of playing, as real musicians are impelled to do. She clicks that clavier to the tick of the technicon, day after day, hours at a time, to much less purpose than if she were to join the Salvation Army, or some other good work which, though noisy, is beneficial.

On the other hand, The Listener knows a young man who works in a railroad office all day, but when night comes his chief joy is to sit at a piano and play. Not one note does he know from another, but he plays Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” through by ear as he has heard concert performers do it, seldom blundering in a harmony, and he plays it in the right key by some mysterious instinct belonging to talent. Why is he not a musician? Because he had to make a living for himself and others so never could afford a single lesson in his life. To be sure, when he does the great things by ear his fingering is clumsy, his execution wretched, from all technical standpoints; but he will play an andante movement or cantabile phrase in a way to stir the depths of one’s musical soul: yes, even the soul of a professional critic who fights shy of all sensational effects.

The man is musical; he has the fire, the spirit of music; the woman is an automaton. Could humanity strike a fair balance he would be refining and developing his talents into an art; she would be doing clerical work for a railroad. Scales and arpeggios are invaluable as a means to a great end,—the expression of musical thought,—but merely as an end they are futile and tiresome.

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You are reading The Musical Listener. from the May, 1897 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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